South Florida boasts great professional sports scene

Over the past decade, the professional sports scene has proven to be one of the perks of living in South Florida.

Things were no different in 2001-2002, where locals had several options to choose from. For indoor sports action, the Miami Heat began their second full season inside the American Airlines Arena, while the WNBA’s Miami Sol made a name for themselves for the first time.

Of course, there was also the option of driving up to the Dade/Broward border, specifically to Pro Player Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins were in the midst of another winning season. Fewer Miamians chose to make that trip to see the Florida Marlins, but those who did were often rewarded with sights of young talent and promise out on the diamond.

Yet, the biggest Cinderella story in South Florida professional sports came from the Miami Fusion. The Major League Soccer franchise improved from mediocrity to the league’s best record, thanks in part to players like Diego Serna, Preki and Pablo Mastroeni. Two games in the Orange Bowl brought many converted Miami soccer fans to watch the Fusion, while more than 11,000 were regularly in attendance for the regular season contests at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Head Coach and former Fort Lauderdale Striker Ray Hudson led the Fusion to the league’s best regular season record at 16-5-5 and the club’s first playoff series victory in three games over the Kansas City Wizards. They fell in the semifinals to San Jose after an overtime goal by the Quakes in Game 3.

Unfortunately, the Fusion won’t enjoy the opportunity of trying to build upon that success next season. Despite posting the league’s best regular season record and being the beneficiary of a 49 percent increase in attendance from last season, the Fusion, along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, were shut down Jan. 8 by MLS in an attempt to downsize the league to 10 teams, as well as cut down on financial losses.

The move came as a shock to many loyal fans of the four-year-old team, but in today’s professional sports world, money and profits mean everything, and that was something the Fusion weren’t having a successful time with. Miami ranked ninth among the twelve MLS teams in terms of attendance. In addition, the Fusion were the only playoff team not to have a local TV or English radio contract, all of which contributed to owner Ken Horowitz losing $40 million over four years. Hopefully South Florida soccer fans will gain another chance sometime in the near future.

Meanwhile, another young team that showed great strides in improvement was the Miami Sol. After going 13-19 in their inaugural season of 2000, the Sol posted a 20-12 mark in 2001, including a 14-3 record over the second half of the year. Much of that could be attributed to the play of Sheri Sam, Sandy Brondello and Elena Baranova, who combined for over 60 percent of the Sol’s point production.

Things have been much more difficult for the Sol since. The team dropped their opening round playoff series to New York in three games, and injuries have forced several key players to the sidelines in 2002. That hasn’t exactly provided good results for the Sol so far. But, with the combination of Ruth Riley set to come off the injured list in the near future, and the experience of Ron Rothstein as head coach, anything can happen for the Sol.

The Sol’s NBA counterpart, the Miami Heat, underwent their second major roster overhaul in as many years, this one a result of a three-game sweep by the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the 2001 Playoffs. Long-time point guard Tim Hardaway was shipped to Dallas for a second round pick and, in an attempt to get younger, the Heat released key contributors Anthony Mason and Dan Majerle.

Things didn’t work out to Pat Riley’s advantage, however, as Miami came up short in the Chris Webber sweepstakes. Other attempts to land big name free agents to South Florida failed, as the Heat were left with a crop of veteran journeyman to sign. Names like Rod Strickland, Kendall Gill, and LaPhonso Ellis promised to provide adequate results, but didn’t give fans a lot of hope for a title contender.

This was especially evident during the first two months of the season. After splitting their first four games, the Heat went on a complete tailspin, losing 12 games in a row. Most of the results were close: 82-76 to Philadelphia for loss No. 3, 80-73 to Minnesota in loss No. 6, 84-83 to Boston in loss No. 9.

An overtime win over Seattle finally broke the streak, but the Heat continued to struggle with their shooting, the catalysts for several more close losses. Much of the problem resulted from the recurrent health problems of franchise center Alonzo Mourning. Throughout much of November and December, Zo was either out of the lineup or not able to play to his full ability.

The Heat didn’t have many bright spots during this period, but the team could always count on the play of swingman Eddie Jones, who rebounded from a disappointing 2000-2001 campaign to post at least 20 points per game on a regular basis. In addition, the early season free agent signing of Jim Jackson helped out some, as the former Maverick showed flashes of the 25 ppg scorer he was early in his career. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough as the Heat found themselves towards the bottom of the league at 6-23 by New Year’s Day.

Miami then started heating up an offense, in a big way. A 102-96 victory over the defending world champion L.A. Lakers represented the Heat’s first 100-point victory. Eddie Jones continued to shoot the lights out, with performances like his 37-point outburst in an overtime win against the Nuggets.

Mourning was finally able to return to form when the occasion rose, such as a 21 point, 12-rebound performance in a Feb. 3 victory over arch-rival New York. Several of the newcomers also kicked in, predominately Strickland, who took over the point guard duties from struggling Anthony Carter during the stretch run.

The Heat had improved to 24-32 by the end of February, and three more victories put Miami in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot. It started to look like Pat Riley’s string of 19 consecutive playoff appearances would have a chance at continuing.

Things wouldn’t work out that way, however. Although the Heat would stay in playoff contention through the final month of the regular season, the team would revert back into their offensive drought. Both Jones and Mourning struggled consistently with their shot, while Brian Grant continued to play through a disappointing sophomore season in a Heat uniform. One bright spot did come from the point, where Strickland and Eddie House continued to have strong second halves to their seasons.

The Heat finished the season at 36-46, their worst record since 1995, and for the first time in Riley’s career as head coach, he found himself watching the playoffs on TV. Despite the late season struggles, Eddie Jones established himself as the go-to guy on the team, leading the team with 18.3 ppg, while Mourning’s numbers decreased to 15.7 ppg in the midst of recovering from kidney problems. Strickland and Jackson emerged from a crop of hit and miss free agents and will likely return to help Miami push for a return to postseason play.

The Heat also have the 10th pick in the NBA draft and there have been rumors that the ballclub may be looking to trade up, in order to grab a player like Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy. Although that isn’t likely, Riley will look for a player who can contribute immediately.

After posting just 66 points in a lackluster 2000-2001 campaign, the Florida Panthers brought in Valeri Bure during the offseason, and hoped that the younger Bure would complement his All-Star brother, Pavel. In addition, the Panthers had gotten rid of the Murray brothers, whom many fans pointed to as the catalyst for recent failure. The new ownership team, which included former UM football great Bernie Kosar, promised better results for the ‘Cats.

Those better results did not come in 2001-2002, as Florida topped their woeful 66-point campaign with an even worse 22-44-10-6 mark in 2001-2002, good for 60 points. Fans were unable to see much of the Bure brothers together on the ice, as an early season injury to Valeri forced him on the sidelines for all but 31 games. Pavel had an unproductive 56 games with the Panthers, quickly falling out of favor with new head coach Mike Keenan, who replaced the fired Duane Sutter after 26 games. On Mar. 18, the ‘Cats’ biggest superstar was shipped to the New York Rangers as part of a five-player deal.

Similar to last season, things did not start off well for the Panthers in 2001. The Russian Rocket had just four goals through the first month of the season, and with the exception of outbursts like a 5-0 win over Tampa Bay on Oct. 7, Florida, once again, was having trouble putting the puck in the net. By the end of November, the ‘Cats were just 6-14-2-3, with their lone bright spot being rookie Kristen Huselius, who had 10 goals by that point.

A few days later, the Panthers made the coaching switch to Keenan, one of the NHL’s leaders is victories, and a Stanley Cup winner in 1994 with the New York Rangers. Florida became the seventh NHL team on Keenan’s resume, and many questions arose to whether “Iron Mike” was able to a guide a team beyond mediocrity.

Unfortunately, the latter questions would take precedence. Although a 6-5-1 December showed a little bit of promise, the Panthers would struggle again, unable to find consistent scorers while dealing with all kinds of mental breakdowns on the defensive end. Results like a 6-0 loss to San Jose on Jan. 5, and a 6-1 loss to Atlanta on Jan. 19 became common.

The Panthers would fall out of playoff contention by the beginning of February, which gave Keenan and then-general manager Chuck Fletcher three months to clean house. Veterans like Bure, Bret Hedican, and Bill Lindsay were shown the door, replaced by newcomers Stephen Weiss, Pierre Dagenais and Byron Ritchie.

Those players, as well as a healthy Valeri Bure, Victor Kozlov and Roberto Luongo, look to give the Panthers a fighting shot at playoff contention next season. In addition, Florida landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. The Panthers have a bright future to look forward to, despite two consecutive off years.

The future may not look so bright for the Florida Marlins. The ‘Fish welcomed in their third owner, Jeffrey Loria, before the start of the 2002 season, amid ongoing rumors of the team moving or being contracted by Major League Baseball.

A lot of that has to do with the continued decrease in attendance, as Pro Player Stadium has routinely housed crowds under 10,000 in 2002. That is unfortunate, because on the field, the Marlins have a pretty decent team, one fighting for contention in the NL East. Cliff Floyd and Preston Wilson continue to be power threats at the plate, while Luis Castillo’s quest to catch Joe DiMaggio have given fans something to cheer about.

With rumors of contraction in Florida and a new stadium deal falling through, John Henry decided to end his three-year tenure with the Marlins and sold his share to Loria and his group. They were looking to get out of a similar situation in Montreal. The move did not please fans, especially when rumors flied around of another fire sale.

That didn’t happen though, at least not through the first three months of the season, as the Marlins have put most of their players from 2001 back on the field. The Marlins got off to a rocky start, beginning with Opening Day, when the Marlins blew a 6-1 lead in Montreal, eventually falling 7-6 to the Expos. One would expect Jeff Torborg’s ballclub to have some momentum on their side entering a series against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, but Florida proceeded to drop two out of three to the Phils, which put their record at 3-3. The Marlins would continue to post back and forth results through April, finishing the month at 13-13.

The Fish would turn things around during the early part of May, but soon after, the bats went cold, along with some ineffective pitching out of the bullpen. Rey Ordonez’s game winning homer in the 10th inning on May 31 gave the Mets a 6-5 win, marking the 14th Marlins loss over the past 20 games.

The Marlins, however, started off June winning the final two games of the Mets series, and have gone on to win several inter-league games since. Castillo has been the hottest hitter in the big leagues, and the pitching has also come around, especially in the bullpen. With one of the best up and coming pitching staffs in the league, and several consistently productive hitters, it is way too early to count the ‘Fish out. And with the Expos expected to tail off soon, the Mets underachieving, and the Phillies just plain bad, it could be the Marlins race alone to try and catch Atlanta at the top of the NL East.

There may be several professional sports franchises in South Florida wearing the up and coming tag, but there is one that has been a consistent playoff team over their 36-year existence. The Miami Dolphins were coming off a surprise 11-5 campaign in Dave Wannstedt’s first year at the helm. Although Miami was trounced 27-0 by Oakland in the second round, Wannstedt’s club showed a lot of improvement over the 9-7 one in Jimmy Johnson’s final season.

In usual Dolphin fashion, Miami got off to a quick start against some good teams in the month of September. Jay Fielder threw two touchdown passes and the Dolphin defense held Tennessee in check to win 31-23 in the opener at Adelphia Coliseum. Two weeks later, Sept. 23 against Oakland, Fiedler brushed off two interceptions to lead Miami on a late fourth quarter 80-yard drive, capping it off himself with a 2 yard TD run. Miami avenged the playoff loss to Oakaland, defeating the silver and black 18-15. Although a 42-10 loss to the Rams would drop Miami’s record to 2-1, the ‘Fins would be in top form the next week, handing the future Super Bowl champion New England Patriots a 30-10 defeat.

But Oct. 14 in the Meadowlands would provide a microcosm for the Dolphins problems over the past few years. Against the New York Jets, Miami dominated the first half, and took a 17-0 lead into the halftime locker room. Then, four Miami turnovers and poor rush defense allowed a stunning Jets comeback, as they went on to win 21-17. The loss may not have been quite as dramatic as Miami blowing a 30-7 lead last year at the Meadowlands, but it still hovered over the team throughout the season.

The Dolphins won three consecutive games to improve their record to 6-2, before the Jets came down to Pro Player Stadium. This time, there would be no comeback, as Aaron Glenn’s 60-yard interception return in the first quarter set up the tone for a 24-0 Jets shutout.

Miami would bounce back to win back-to-back games at Buffalo and against Denver. Things looked even brighter for the Dolphins when struggling Indianapolis came to town on Dec. 10, and were sent back as 41-6 losers. That put Miami’s record at 9-3, and in contention for a first round bye. But, back-to-back losses at San Francisco and New England ended any chance of that, and now at 9-5, the ‘Fins had to make sure to win at least one more game to ensure a playoff berth.

Unlike the Jimmy Johnson days, Miami would go into the playoffs strong, winning their final two contests, a 21-14 victory over Atlanta, and a 34-7 rout against Buffalo. The ‘Fins finished the year with their second straight 11-5 record, and a No.4 seed in the playoffs.

Miami’s playoff woes would continue, though, as the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens came into Pro Player and showed the Dolphins what a great defense can do. The Ravens held Miami to just 151 yards of total offense and won going away, 20-3.

That put Wannstedt in a similar situation this offseason. The coach, however, has refused to accept Miami’s failure to run the ball, and on March 11, the team made their biggest move since luring Jimmy Johnson out of retirement in 1996 – acquiring 24-year-old and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Ricky Williams. Williams appears to be the perfect fit in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s run-oriented attack. With Fiedler signed to a five year deal and most of a solid defense intact, 2002 may very well be the Year of the Fish.